This Is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health

This Is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health

September 14, 2016 | Robert Greenwald and Regina Clemente


While more than 300,000 inmates in American prisons are diagnosed with mental illness, only around 30,000 mentally ill patients are being treated in psychiatric facilities throughout the country.

Sound crazy? It is. America is currently “treating” mental illness through incarceration—at an enormous price to our country. That is the focus of Brave New Films’ series This Is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health.

The privatization of mental health care by the Reagan administration repositioned access to mental health care as an unaffordable luxury, rather than a vital human need. Since then, mental health treatment has been out of reach for many—especially those in low-income communities and communities of color. It is not a coincidence that these are the same communities with the highest incarceration rates.

What happens when someone who has not received sufficient medical care experiences symptoms of mental illness? Without community mental health programs, police become the first responders for every situation. What should be treated as a medical crisis for the individual escalates into criminal and illegal behavior punishable by imprisonment.

The irony? Once in prison, many people receive mental health treatment for the very first time. But not without the huge price of abuse—including frequent use of solitary confinement. Most police and corrections officers, who unfortunately don’t have Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) or other mental health training, see the symptoms of individuals with mental illness as non-compliance.

Things are no better upon release, when access to medications and therapy likely ceases, and individuals are left to navigate the confusing world of supervised release alone. It comes as no surprise that in our current system, recidivism for the mentally ill is extremely high.

Some communities have found a better way. Police departments, such as in San Antonio, Texas, have adopted CIT to instruct officers on how to be first responders to those with mental illness. They have been trained to de-escalate situations without the use of force when the cases are nonviolent (as many are). Most importantly, they do not take these individuals to jail. Instead, individuals are taken to mental health facilities, where they receive treatment and other resources to help them get back on their feet.

Why don’t all precincts have CIT training? It is not because of cost. In the past, police precincts in San Antonio spent more than $600,000 on paying officers overtime to wait with individuals at the hospital for psychological evaluations. Meanwhile, taxpayers spend an average of only $350 per incident for diversion programs compared to jailing a mentally ill person at a cost of $2,300. San Antonio alone saved $50 million over the first five years of implementation of CIT/diversion programs, which includes building and staffing all facilities.

Brave New Films created This Is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health to open up a serious dialogue about treating mental illness as a health issue, not a crime. Not only are more humane options out there, but these options also are more cost effective—saving cities, counties, and taxpayers money.

Brave New Films has been working with organizations in New York, Los Angeles, and throughout the country that are pushing to stop the over-criminalization of those with mental health issues. In New York, these organizations offer CIT for officers, improve medication management, and create centers to which police can bring individuals with mental illness. Los Angeles County is putting $120 million toward developing a new Office of Diversion and Re-Entryfocused on treatment and alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill.

We encourage you to watch This Is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Illness and work in your local community to ensure mental illness is seen as a health issue requiring medical treatment, not incarceration.

This is one in a series of blog posts written by 2016 NCCD Media for a Just Society Award winners and finalists. Read more about the series here